Interview – Bao Filmmakers Domee Shi and Becky Nieman-Cobb
The Oscar nominations come out January 22 and Canadian director Domee Shi is already on the shortlist with Bao. She can’t talk about the Academy Awards, but the Toronto-raised animator says just making the short at Pixar feels like a victory.
Filmmaker Domee Shi is on The Ex-Press’s list of Canadians to watch for when this year’s Oscar nominations are announced January 22.
On DVD/Blu-Ray as part The Incredibles 2
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER — Bao was getting buzz even before it bowed before Incredibles 2 this summer and pushed to the head of Oscar’s animated short film pack. Its 20-something Canadian director, Domee Shi, made history as the first female to ever direct a Pixar short. It was a notable shift from the studio known for boy stories such as Toy Story and Cars, but Shi says she believes she’s part of a larger change in the industry, and the realization of Bao is concrete proof of that transformation.
“To be able to make Bao at Pixar … really showed they are trying to embrace creative voices from different sources and actively trying to draw new inspiration from different wells,” says Shi, sitting down for an interview to promote the DVD-Blu-ray release of Incredibles 2, complete with its theatrical short, Bao (and a plethora of bonus features). “I think they realize if they want to continue to innovate and tell fresh unique stories they have to find them from different places.”
To be able to make Bao at Pixar … showed they are trying to embrace creative voices from different sources and actively trying to draw new inspiration from different wells…
You can buy, stream, and download Bao now for any device. But there’s something about seeing a short film on a big screen that provides a unique experience for the viewer: Something whole but brief that isn’t trying to sell you something. Bao is personal and a little weird. It tugs on something primal. It’s everything we look for in YouTube, without the ultimate disappointment of watching bad camerawork and skin-crawling confessions.
Bao is a largely wordless story of a lonely woman and a dumpling that suddenly comes to life, filling a hole in the empty space. The dumpling is adorable. An edible cross between Pikachu and a pirogi, little Bao is clearly the star of this little show. After all, it’s a Disney-Pixar film. Nothing bad happens to anything cute. Right?
The dumpling is adorable. An edible cross between Pikachu and a pirogi, little Bao is clearly the star of this little show. After all, it’s a Disney-Pixar film. Nothing bad happens to anything cute. Right?
So you’d think. Yet, Bao represents a re-think in so many ways. Shi says she came up with the idea over four years ago as a potential side project after graduating from Toronto’s Sheridan college, and landing work at Pixar on In and Out — where she says she spent a lot of time working on Sadness and Disgust, two of the most compelling characters in the film about the conflicting feelings inside a pubescent girl’s mind. “They didn’t want Sadness to be a wet blanket… So I said what if she’s self-deprecating? Because I identify with that.”
Shi says Bao began the same way — through feelings of identity. “I really wanted to do a story about food coming to life, kind of like a little Chinese version of the gingerbread man. I chose bao because for me, it’s the symbol of the Asian family. You make bao, you make dumplings around the dinner table or over holidays and weekends. And I thought it would be the perfect vessel to tell this story about this family, and about this mom who can’t let go of her little dumpling.” Shi laughs, quietly. “It’s sort of based on my life too. I’m the only child and I’m the over-protected little bao who wants to break free of her mom.”
Born in China, raised in Toronto and now living in California, Shi included recognizable images of the Toronto skyline in her film as an homage to her hometown. She also notes how important it was to ground the film in a place that was recognizably real in order to give us a sense of reality. “I think it helps if it’s in a specific place because it’s a fantastical story.”
It’s also, in some ways, disturbing. Because (plot spoiler coming…) just as soon as we come to love little Bao, and watch him grow into an autonomous dumpling, no sooner does Dumpling Mama eat him.
If you’re not expecting metaphor — and who does in a genre where birds sing show tunes, penguins tap-dance and robots dream of Hello Dolly? — then it’s a tad jarring. And darkly funny, which makes you wonder how far Shi could, or would, have gone.
“Yeah,” says Shi nodding to the “dark” side. “The eating part was always there from the beginning. So that told me from the very beginning, that the studio seems to be supportive of my offbeat vision for this short and the only things that really changed were the details… at one point, it was probably more disturbing because there was some chewing… and it went on for longer….”
The eating part was always there from the beginning. So that told me from the very beginning, that the studio seems to be supportive of my offbeat vision for this short and the only things that really changed were the details… at one point, it was probably more disturbing because there was some chewing… and it went on for longer….
She smiles innocently. “I shortened it to clean it up. Make it a gulp, a crime of passion. It was just about tweaking that and making it feel like a just spur of the moment, quick reflex thing, instead of I want to murder my son thing.”
Getting the comic and dramatic intonation just right was one of producer Becky Neiman-Cobb’s central preoccupations while working with Shi on Bao. “There was a lot of time spent on crafting that twist,” says Neiman-Cobb, who mentored Shi through the process and went out of her way to assemble a female-driven production crew.
“We didn’t want it to be hitting you over the head — like this is a dream. And we didn’t want it to be so subtle, either. So we did a lot with the editor, working on the timing. And the lighting so that when dumpling changes into her real son, and she is waking from her fever dream, that we can feel the shift. We did talk about it a lot, and Domee really liked the ambiguity.”
Shi nods. “I think in the end I was okay with people wondering: Was that really a dumpling that came to life? Was it really a creature that she ate? But we showed it to kids and I mean even yesterday we did a presentation… and they would come up to us at the end and say I totally got that. Or, one kid was like, I loved the short and I turned to my mom and said you better not eat me when you go off to college.”
The movie is about the dynamic between a doting mother and her over-protected adult son — which feels familiar and to a degree, stereotypical — but that misses the palpable layers of female awareness both Shi and Nieman-Cobb bring to the fore by first off, offering a female protagonist who looks different from the standard porcelain-faced pretty things associated with the Disney brand, and secondly, by their mere presence in the boy kingdom of animation.
I tell them I’ve interviewed many Disney and Pixar animators before, but they are the first women I’ve interviewed on an animation press tour.
“I just got shivers when you said that,” says Nieman-Cobb. “I think we have a great example. This wasn’t just about ourselves. We had a ton of female leadership on the project as well. Our sound designer, our production designer, production manager… We just it felt was inspiring for both off us, and we hope we can be an example for women and girls out there who are thinking about this as a career.”
“It is still very male-dominated industry. But you really see the change happening on the ground floor. Especially at schools, enrolment is now over 50 per cent women and sometimes even 75 per cent girls. And hopefully, with this short and other projects lead by women, that you will see those numbers reflected more in the industry,” says Shi.
“And there is a ton of opportunity, all over the industry,” says Nieman-Cobb, who started at Pixar in 2004. “I have an art background, but my love is producing, and managing people and creating teams and supporting them in their art. I want to help them do their best and watch them shine… and I hope they can see themselves in what we do.”
According to Oscar rules, the two women can’t talk about anything Oscar-related, though they are already on the short list for best animated short. The most they can offer is a comment on a hypothetical nomination.
I’d be super excited to get a nomination because then I could go to the show, and I’ve always wanted to see what that would be like. But I wouldn’t want to win, because then I wouldn’t have to talk. I’ve usually hid behind my drawings… I’m still not comfortable being thrust in front of them.
“It would be icing on the cake,” says Shi, who is already preparing her next film — a full-fledged feature for Pixar (that she can’t talk about). “I’d be super excited to get a nomination because then I could go to the show. I’ve always wanted to see what that would be like. But I wouldn’t want to win, because then I wouldn’t have to talk. I’ve usually hid behind my drawings… I’m still not comfortable being thrust in front of them.”
Bao can be viewed online for a small fee, or purchased as part of recently released The Incredibles 2 DVD/Blu-ray editions. The 91st annual Oscar nominations will be announced January 22nd. The gala event airs February 24, 2019.
Main image: Producer Becky Nieman-Cobb (left) and Domee Shi (right) in Vancouver. Photo by Katherine Monk.
THE EX-PRESS, January 14, 2019